San Juan, Puerto Rico

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San Juan, Puerto Rico

The capital of San Juan (2006 pop. 426,618) has throughout its history been at the center of Puerto Rico's political, economic, and cultural life. Although the island was discovered in 1493, Spain did not establish a permanent foothold there until 1509, when Juan Ponce de León founded Caparra on the western rim of San Juan Bay. In 1521 colonists resettled on the islet on the bay, the city's present site, naming the town Puerto Rico. Over time the harbor city and country traded names, with the island coming to be called Puerto Rico and the city San Juan.

A key node in the Caribbean imperial defensive system, San Juan developed as a military garrison facing the menace of foreign hostility. The city experienced four major attacks, three by the British (1595, 1598, and 1797), and a particularly devastating one, in which most of San Juan was destroyed by fire, by the Dutch (1625).

San Juan remained sparsely populated and economically stagnant until the mid- to late-1700s, when Puerto Rico reaped the benefits of trade liberalization, growing international demand for sugar, and extensive new military construction projects. With negligible manufacturing, mining, and agriculture, the city focused on commerce. As the sugar trade expanded, the city became a leading commercial center as well as a hub for the Caribbean slave trade. Military construction injected capital into the city, attracting new businesses and services, additional military personnel, and an influx of free, slave, and penal laborers. In this period women were the city's largest population group, with many poor females of color performing domestic work and street vending activities. This economic boom also fueled the rise of a wealthy merchant class with investments in sugar haciendas.

During the 1800s San Juan's population increased fourfold, from 7,800 civilians and military personnel in 1803 to nearly 32,000 people in 1899. A well-defined hierarchy characterized this urban society: an upper class of royal and military officers, planters, and merchants; a middle class of professionals; and, representing the largest percentage of nonwhite residents, the laboring classes and the urban poor. After the mid-1850s, military and public policies forced working-class neighborhoods to relocate outside the city walls, transforming San Juan's social, racial, and spatial configuration. In 1897 a segment of the defensive wall was torn down to allow urban sprawl to the east of the historic colonial district.

Historically, the interplay between the needs of the military and civilian populations shaped the city's urban development. From 1898 through the early 1960s, San Juan was strategically important for the United States' hemispheric defense. During World War II the city served as the Caribbean control center for U.S. naval and air operations. In the early 1960s the U.S. military closed its bases in Old San Juan, transferring control of the colonial-era fortifications to the U.S. National Park Service and other facilities to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

As one of the oldest European settlements in the Americas, San Juan exhibits distinctive Spanish colonial and neoclassical architecture. Since its creation in 1955, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture has restored and preserved invaluable religious, military, government, and residential structures, including Casa Blanca (1521), residence of Ponce de León's descendants; the Dominican monastery (1523), a superb example of colonial Spanish monastic architecture; San José Church (1523), a rare instance of gothic architecture in the Americas; and several eighteenth- and nineteenth-century private dwellings that now house exhibits of art, architecture, history, ethnology, and rare books. The Columbus Quincentennial of 1992 sparked a new wave of projects in Old San Juan, comprising restoration of the Ballajá army barracks, which later housed the Museum of the Americas; La Princesa, a nineteenth-century prison, then home to the Puerto Rico Tourism Company; and Paseo de la Princesa, a promenade on the waterfront of San Juan. This successful restoration program has refreshed public understanding of the national past and has revitalized Old San Juan as a vibrant residential, commercial, and cultural center, strengthening San Juan's position as a leading tourism destination in the Caribbean.

See alsoPonce de León, Juan; Puerto Rico.


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                                     Allan S. R. Sumnall

                                        Luis A. GonzÁlez

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San Juan, Puerto Rico

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